Red Sox 2017 Report Cards: Left-handed pitcher Chris Sale

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 1: Chris Sale
BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 1: Chris Sale /

Our annual Report Card series evaluates and grades the 2017 season of each member of the Boston Red Sox. Up next – left-handed pitcher Chris Sale.

The price to acquire Chris Sale in a trade with the Chicago White Sox was steep but you can’t say he wasn’t worth it after the lefty delivered one of the best performances by a Boston Red Sox pitcher in recent memory.

Sale finished either at or near the top of the American League in almost every significant pitching category. He led the league with 214 1/3 innings pitched, 308 strikeouts and a 12.93 K/9. His 2.90 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 7.16 K/BB ratio trailed only Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber.

The staggering strikeout total places Sale behind only Pedro Martinez‘ 313 strikeouts in 1999 for the most by a Red Sox pitcher in a single season. He almost certainly would have broken the record if his final regular season start wasn’t skipped once the Red Sox found their playoff seeding locked in. Sale struck out double-digit batters 18 times this season, one short of Pedro’s franchise record.

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For a while it seemed that Sale would cruise to his first Cy Young Award and was even garnering some MVP consideration. By the end of July he was 13-4 with a sparkling 2.37 ERA and enough strikeouts to make us believe he had a realistic shot at the franchise record.

Then the calendar flipped to August and Sale started to show signs of wearing down during the dog days of summer. He was hammered by Cleveland twice that month, allowing a total of 13 earned runs over eight innings between the two starts. He lost twice down the stretch to a Yankees team he had dominated throughout his career. He wrapped up the regular season by allowing a season-high four home runs in a loss to the Toronto Blue Jays.

It’s not as if Sale completely fell apart over the last couple of months. He mixed in some dominant outings that showed he was still the league’s best pitcher when he was on his game. He was simply off a bit more than we were used to the later the season dragged on. That’s nothing new for Sale, who owns a career 3.78 ERA in September – his highest ERA in any month.

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Perhaps the Red Sox would be wise to lighten his workload a bit next season. Sale has topped 200 innings in four of the last five seasons, setting a career-high with 226 2/3 innings in 2016. He’s clearly capable of being a workhorse but just because he can lead the league in innings pitched doesn’t mean he should.

During his tenure with the White Sox his teams rarely had anything to play for in September and never made it to the postseason, which may have allowed for his late season fades to go overlooked. In Boston there are high expectations, so he’ll need to be prepared to pitch deep into October. The occasional skipped start or pulling him earlier in a blowout could help keep him fresh for a strong finish.

When Sale finally got his first taste of the postseason it didn’t go well. He was shelled for seven runs in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Houston Astros. He pitched brilliantly out of the bullpen, nearly salvaging the series in Game 4, but manager John Farrell stuck with him a bit too long and it cost them. Sale would end up being tagged with two of Boston’s three losses in the series.

Sale remains locked up for two more seasons through a pair of team options totaling $26 million – a tremendous bargain for a pitcher of his caliber.

. Left-handed pitcher. . Chris Sale. A

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While his late-season struggles may have ceded the Cy Young to Kluber, Sale was still undoubtedly one of the top two pitchers in the league this year. He’ll remain in that elite class heading into next season aiming to prove that he can dominate over the course of an entire season rather than only the first few months.